If you’re seeking a memoir writing expert (as I did) who knows what no-one else does about the genre… allow me to recommend Mary Karr. The author of memoirs Lit, Cherry and The Liar’s Club, Karr is sometimes credited with reviving interest in the memoir genre. But what I really appreciate about Karr’s work is that I think she’s helped a lot of people (like me) to understand what the term ‘memoir’ actually means in a literary sense.
The problem with the term ‘memoir’
‘Memoir’ as a term tends to attract a lot of hobbyists.
I’ve heard people use the word memoir to refer to a PDF document they want someone to write of their grandfather’s life, OR a work of published literary nonfiction from a professional author.
And these are not the same thing!
Because the term is so widely misunderstood (and self-publishing a life story is a popular past-time among retired or older folks), I’ve seen (more than one) memoir writing organisation run by individuals who have never written a book for professional publication. And this means they’re teaching the literary genre – and the category of memoir – completely incorrectly!
As someone who has worked in print publishing and media for over 20 years, which requires an accurate understanding of whatever genre or marketplace you’re writing within, this crossover from professionals to amateurs (and the fact that it’s hard to differentiate between the two with memoir, in particular), this drives me mad!
Memoir is NOT a novel. Nor is it your life story.
What actually is memoir?
A literary or commercial memoir for professional publication is a work of creative nonfiction, which means you apply storytelling and plotting and structural techniques, to tell a story about your lived experience.
Story being the important word, here. Memoir is a story. A narrative. It requires an understanding of narrative structure – while also requiring an understanding of the realities of telling true stories – but not like journalism, because unlike reportage, which is about issues and events that other people have experienced, the author of a memoir is exposing their OWN life on the page.
Even celebrity memoirs – which most people think of first, when they hear the term ‘memoir’ – must have a certain level of craft in the writing, which is why they’re commonly ghost-written.
Demi Moore’s INSIDE OUT or Brittany Spears’ THE WOMAN IN ME or even (the artist formerly known as Prince) Harry’s SPARE were all ghost-written by professional authors – and this is because memoir requires an understanding of the craft of nonfiction AND storytelling AND truth and the legalities of that, and takes an expert approach.
You can change names in a memoir, for sure. You can even skip over certain facts (in fact, I recommend you DO) – people don’t buy a memoir for a forensic exploration of your life with all the irrelevant, mundane detail – they buy a memoir for the TRUTH of the STORY.
And they expect the author to be honest about their experience WHILE ALSO telling a damn good story. Memoir combines the hardest part of writing a novel (story structure and plot) teamed with the hardest parts of journalism and nonfiction and requires an author to anticipate all sorts of reactions from readers, which is why I’m grateful I’d had a lot of journalism, opinion articles and essays published before my first memoir was published.
Having weekly stories in widely-circulating outlets with millions of readers exposed me to just how many different reactions you can get to one story. It’s actually quite wild. And you can’t take it personally.
So to write a good memoir – or at the very least, one that has the potential to be published – you need to know how to team the structure of fiction with the truth of nonfiction.
I believe you need to blend the skills of a novelist with the objectivity of a journalist and the courage to be disliked or misunderstood, to write a memoir well.
Write a short personal story for publication and you’ll get a little taste of what I’m talking about…!
Misunderstandings around memoir
Memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page….
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir
Terms like ‘precocious’ or the presumption that memoir is life story (so why write one when you’re 30, etc etc) are partially why I was loath to describe my second book as a memoir when I told people what I was working on. But when we were negotiating the publishing deal for A Letter From Paris and I was waiting to hear back from my literary agent on the pitch, I saw Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in a bookshop. I swooped as soon as I saw it: an actual text devoted to this sub-category of literature, written by a writing Professor!
In Karr’s The Art of Memoir I (finally) found definitions of the literary category that hit the nail on the head, explorations of memoir mindset issues, and an understanding of the complex balance between creative writing and plotting considerations necessary with book-length narrative and the nuances of the author sharing the truth of their own experiences.
I’d read two of Karr’s memoirs by then: but until The Art of Memoir, an interview she gave to The Paris Review was all I could find of a discussion from an author on the intricacies of the process of writing a memoir and what it entails both before and after publication.
It was SO helpful (and so necessary) to me to hear from an actual published memoir author, as I was grappling with the questions which come up when you’re ‘going on the record’ with your life for a public audience, which is what happens when you get a publishing deal for a memoir.
And I was so relieved to find that finally, someone who had been successfully published, shared her process, particularly what she had learned AFTER a memoir was published… because that’s when you really do start to understand how wide and vast human interpretation of the same story can run!
Because I don’t believe you can (or SHOULD) teach memoir unless you’ve written and traditionally published AT LEAST one book in this extremely unique literary category yourself!
And no, not self-published. Self-published memoirs rarely reach the global audience of traditionally-published memoirs. (I’m not saying never, I’m saying rarely – so if you’ve self-published and it went well, good for you! But this is rare.)
Because when you have a memoir hit a wide audience – as Karr did, and as I did with my second one – you experience a level of intrusion that, by nature, gives you a unique understanding of the specifics of the genre.
Unless you’ve fielded thousands of emails from strangers giving you their feedback on your life and your choices (positively AND negatively), you just cannot grasp the experience of sharing your personal story in a book-length work. It’s intimate. It’s vulnerable. It’s willingly exposing yourself to others – and it goes against pretty much every primal fear we have.
Memoir as a valuable (and niche) sub-category of literature
And maybe this is why a lot of the students I’ve taught inside The Art of Memoir are Literature teachers themselves, or working as professional writers and editors in traditional book publishing.
Because they’ve noticed, like I did, that this genre has more nuance than any other category of literature – and is open to so many different ‘interpretations’ of certain common terms.
Karr was the first writing ‘teacher’ I could find who valued this category of literature enough to pay it the time and attention and specificity it deserves.
And this is why my Art of Memoir programme is only for memoir writers – we deserve it! And we need it. The Art of Memoir provides training specifically to master the genre, and to understand the mindset considerations all memoir authors need to fully grasp from the beginning of the drafting process, which will also prove so valuable when the work is out there in the world for public consumption!
Because even in 2017, with my second book, many publishers, authors, agents, journalists, editors, and publishing professionals were sharing misguided and misinformed and generalist publishing advice and opinion with me that does not apply to memoir. The most common (publishing) assumption being that you have to be a celebrity to write one. And this is because a great many agents and editors have not worked on or sold or studied literary memoir. It’s no fault of their own, because when I studied Professional Writing and Editing, literary memoir (or memoir) was not actually taught as a subject. It was lumped in with nonfiction, and there’s a great difference between a how-to guide to growing plants and a compelling narrative around something that’s deeply transformed you and your life!
From the pitch to the proposal to the draft to how you will need to navigate publicity and marketing when you’re published (and look AFTER yourself in this process) –
Memoir is different. To all other categories of literature – and to other categories of nonfiction.
Why does this matter?
When you traditionally publish a true story – YOUR true story – this is a legacy, a record, a lasting chronicle of your life that will outlast you. When people BUY your memoir, or read it years after you’ve written it, it’s as though it’s happening right now, in the world of the reader. I have people emailing me asking about something in an early chapter of A Letter From Paris that I’ve long since forgotten – because to a reader, story is living, breathing, right NOW. And the exposure and immediacy of a memoir author – and the fact that you are the person who experienced the tale that they’re reading – means people often have this immediate reaction where they feel justified in contacting you with extremely personal and intrusive questions.
Memoir requires a level of visibility on your life that quite frankly, is terrifying, and rightly so!
And EVERYONE thinks their perception of your story is accurate, so you need to be grounded and clear in your original intentions and motivations for writing it. And any uncertainty around your approach can unravel you (writing is hard enough without doubting whether or not you’re ‘allowed’ to say certain things!). This is exactly why I share an exercise to develop an intention around your WHY when you join The Art of Memoir, to help you understand WHAT this category actually IS and involves. And so that whenever a random stranger (or even an agent, or publisher) with misinformed feedback threatens to make you wobbly and uncertain, you’re anchored in your OWN truth, your OWN certainty, and your own intentions. Because this is what matters with memoir. You can’t control other people’s interpretations of your story – you can only be clear and certain on your own.
And I teach memoir like this with the assumption that your story has sold millions of copies across the world. Because when you act as if that truth is the most important component to sharing a story with integrity, you don’t miss those vital foundational components so essential to retaining your sanity (!) when you’re pitching and published.
It’s ALSO why I emphasise to first-time authors a clear understanding of story structure because this informs what and how you choose to reveal certain information about your life.
Because success in this genre is not just about getting published. Or making bestselling sales.
It’s about feeling stable and secure even when you get bad reviews or scathing emails or someone tags you on a social media post where your story (your life) is criticised!
Succeeding as a memoir author is about YOU directing the story. The empowerment that comes from authoring a memoir is because YOU choose what to reveal. And to make that choice consciously, you need to understand story structure!
And success looks like YOU being comfortable and CONFIDENT that you have told YOUR truth, in a way that you wish to tell it, in a way that meets YOUR high standards, regardless of anyone else’s opinion or different experience of a particular event.
The Art of Memoir is about YOU having all the education and understanding at your fingertips to make a consciously informed selection of what you include in this precious, lasting book that could be the only one ever published about your life.
This is your power, this is your privilege, this is your responsibility, and this is how and why writing your memoir and bringing it to a standard that you can stand behind it being out in the world, a record and a work of art that shares a piece of your life… completely transforms you.
I share how to master YOUR narrative inside The Art of Memoir.
Why? Because turning a personal, messy, complex lived experience, lesson or journey into ORGANISED and READABLE form is not just powerful. It’s life-changing.
If you want to master your memoir draft and bring it to a standard where it can be widely read (and published), then The Art of Memoir will show you specifically how to do that.